Whether you call it coriander or cilantro, Coriandrum sativum is a controversial plant. If you were to line up six people and ask their opinion, four would praise the sprightly flavor of cilantro leaves, and two would make awful faces and come up with a descriptive phrase like this one, posted in response to a recent story in the New York Times: "mildewed canvas deck chair combined with the flavor of old window screen."
The controversial flavor problem has been traced to differences in aroma and taste perception, with some people missing the floral notes that make cilantro leaves taste and smell good. This may be a genetic trait, but it is subject to change. One of your two cilantro haters may eventually change their minds, while the other will forever consider cilantro to be a vile insult to the taste buds. The lesson here is simple: don't plan a dinner for guests without checking their coriander status first.
Cilantro in the Garden
European gardeners refer to coriander as coriander, while Americans call the leafy juvenile form cilantro and speak of coriander when growing plants for seeds. It's a handy distinction for gardeners, because this species is always in a hurry to produce flowers and seeds when grown in spring. The "cilantro stage" passes very quickly when days are getting longer and warmer, with most plants showing signs of bolting after 50 to 60 days in the garden. To have a continuous supply, you must keep planting more seeds. When the weather warms in summer, you can keep new crops coming by growing cilantro in the shade of taller plants like tomatoes.
As long as cilantro insists on bolting, a strong case can be made for allowing a pair of plants from your early spring planting to bloom and set seeds (the seed-to-seed process takes about 120 days). Clusters of white coriander blossoms make tremendous nectar plants for bees and butterflies, and a single well-grown coriander plant will yield about 400 seeds. Best of all, the seeds ripen just in time for late summer planting. When the mature seeds dry to tan, I crumble the seed-bearing branches where I want my fall crop to grow, as well as places where I would like to see cilantro seedlings in spring. Handled this way, coriander is one of the most successful reseeding crops in my garden.
Coriander is often listed among plants that are difficult to transplant, but this is not true. Young plants seeded into pots or lifted from the garden transplant with ease. However, elderly plants purchased in stores typically bolt as soon as they are set out, which frustrates new gardeners and makes them think they have done something wrong. Because it grows so rapidly, coriander is one plant that should be grown from seed rather than from purchased seedlings of unknown age.
Coriander is often named as a good companion plant for potatoes, and a recent study from Poland suggests that coriander may help repel Colorado potato beetles – great news since the two plants grow on the same spring-to-summer schedule. Coriander is also said to discourage aphids, which may be true in an indirect way. Coriander flowers attract beneficial hover flies, the larvae of which eat aphids like candy.
Eating It All
When plants are young, you can harvest perfect cilantro leaves as you need them in the kitchen by pinching them off. Then, as soon as you see a central stalk beginning to form in the plants' centers, pull plants that are not being grown for seed, roots and all. Crisp white cilantro roots are often used to make Thai soups, but I like eating them raw, as a garden snack.
An overabundance of cilantro leaves is best preserved by freezing, because cilantro does not hold its flavor well when dried. Some people make cilantro pesto and freeze the excess in small containers, or you can toss clean, dry leaves with a little canola oil and freeze them. A fresh batch of cilantro salsa is never more than a few moments away.
Coriander seeds have plenty of uses, too. Indian curries rely on the warm, citrusy notes provided by coriander seeds, which should always be crushed or ground just before using because of rapid loss of flavor compounds. Healthwise, a case can be made for crushing up a few seeds and tossing them into every pot of rice. In one study, coriander helped diabetic rats produce insulin. In another, ground coriander seeds lowered blood cholesterol in rats fed a high fat diet. Not what cilantro haters want to hear, but they can always seek the comfort of supportive friends, like those who write anti-cilantro haikus or wear I Hate Cilantro clothing. Sadly, they will never know what they're missing.
By Barbara Pleasant